Those Taboos and Rituals of Avoidance



How did you end your year? How did you begin the new one?


Our life is really one continuous strand of nearly predictable direction. It does not have any clear origin and no definite end until the human groups began marking the beginning of a man and his community down to the terminus of the same man and his ties to his own social group. This is culture.


Whether done thousands of years ago or on some remembered dates, these markers vary from one community or society to another, each one relevant only insofar as one’s membership to that kinship group is concerned.


When you think of these markers, they become very tedious and yet they are performative points – sites where one does not so much think about them as do them. We perform in these markers; we act in them and on them.


The results are in those splendid hours and days, even moments, signifying shifts and transitions for an individual and his family, community, town, city or state.


One of the greatest transitions is the changing of the year.


I grew up in a household where grandparents subscribed to magazines. In far-off San Fernando, Ticao Island, the Philippine Free Press was one of the regular reading materials. December would have thick issues, with the Nativity on the cover. The January would always have the New Year’s greetings and the illustration of a toddler in diaper, a sash bearing the number of the incoming year. Leaving the scene was the old year, a tottering old man, shriveled and all, his sash on which could be seen written the departing year barely clinging to his bones.


The incoming year was a happy reality to me, and the old year leaving always a poignant one. It was one of the first life’s lessons about how all things aged and vanished away and how youth could be insolent and proud.


When the old year therefore was about to go, we were reminded to observe many things. There was the New Year’s resolution. This was serious business then. You sort of set goals and try to follow them. You discard old ways and old habits that did not contribute to your well-being as a four-year or five-year old boy!


At home, the kitchen on the 31st of December was a crazy site of cooking and then cleaning. I believe it was the first time for me to see the open kitchen almost overhauled as little structures were repaired or straightened. Then everything stopped at midnight. And because it was a small town and this was the 50s, all things ceased at nine in the evening. Only the cold air seeping thru the wall was allowed to move.


We slept or went to bed or laid out huge mats for us to sleep on. More than ever this rule was enforced: the head of the eldest was closer to the upper part of the mat, followed by the second son, and the third. The second eldest son must not sleep with his head lined up the same way as his older brother. This was the lesson in age-grading and respect.


If we woke up when the whistle bombs (fashionable then) and fireworks started to wrack the night sky, then we would eat of the midnight feast. There was always the “linukay,” glutinous rice cooked in coconut and with just the slight dash of sweetness. The women in the house always subscribed to the idea that native rice cake should never be sugary. “The rice is sweet enough,” an aunt would always remind us.


There would be the usual meat dishes and other rice cakes, a bounty enough to last for another day. There was barely any cooking on the first day. Nothing was bought on the first day of the year, not even posporo or matchsticks. One could always ask for “flame” (this was in the form of a lighted wood with its ember promising a hearty fire) from the neighbor.


If you were awake and was part of the festive riot the previous night, you needed to wake up early the first morning of the new year, or else you would be spending the whole year waking up late. In our town, we had a word for this seeming curse – mamumulaan. I have been searching for the root word meaning of this and I could not find it until I encountered the same word in Urdu! In Urdu! “Mulaan” connotes “habitually.”


The key to spending the first year of the year is to avoid doing actions that you would not want to be enslaved doing the rest of the year. If you look at it, the new year is a promise of a new beginning. Every act and every food has a meaning on that day, a day for instilling efficacy. The sticky glutinous rice is a symbolic longing for kinship to be maintained – a belief which is common among Asian communities. We stick together, no matter what. The idea of not allowing any centavo to leave your pocket is a call to saving. The simple, basic food stands for frugality and simplicity. And, let us not forget that, for at least a day, with the kitchen barely touched, the women (our mothers, aunts, sisters) get at least to rest from patriarchy, and face the world with the men in their lives. If that sounds sexist, my deepest apologies for the rest of the year.